This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
Myth #1: The dispute between the church and science was all about the geography of the heavens as perceived by Galileo.
The dispute between the church and Galileo sowed the seed for the apparent divorce between science and faith. At face value, the dispute was about the theory of the universe, presented by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) in 1543, that the sun was at the center of the universe. This theory was in opposition to the Aristotelian view promoted by the church, that the sun and other planets were in orbit around the earth. Galileo favored the Copernican model because of what he observed through his own telescopes, particularly that the moons of Jupiter were in orbit around the planet Jupiter. These were landmark telescopic observations—not all bodies in the universe were orbiting the earth!
Copernicus’s theory was regarded as heretical because it clashed with the church’s interpretation of the biblical creation account, in which “God set the earth on its foundations” (Ps. 104:5).
Now, Harvard historian Owen Gingerich explodes the above myth, in the following words:
As far as the theologians were concerned, the Copernican system was not really the issue. I can hardly emphasize this point enough. The battleground was the method itself, the route to sure knowledge of the world, the question of whether the Book of Nature could in any way rival the inerrant Book of Scripture as an avenue to truth.1
Following Galileo’s observations through his telescopes, power and control by theologians was the issue at stake and not the geography of the heavens. Any individual with a telescope had access to the truths of nature–in this case, astronomy and the starry vaults of our night skies.
Troubling scenarios indeed; the Benedictine monk Angelo Grillo used the term cannonista2 referring to any person in possession of this audacious new instrument.
Who controls the access to the wells of truth? A question of paramount importance at the time of Galileo facing the Inquisition with its indescribable cruelty and control. Galileo was summoned from Florence to Rome for trial by the Inquisition in 1633, to be brought to Rome in chains if necessary. He saw no conflict between the domains of scientific research and the Scriptures. Galileo believed that study of the universe would promote greater understanding of the correct interpretation of the Scriptures. But the label of Galileo as a suspected heretic prevailed in the trial, and he was forced to recant and sentenced to house arrest: he died in Arcetri and on January 9, 1642, was buried in an unmarked grave.
The great divorce between God and Science centered upon whether the voice of Galileo Galilei could be heeded, or silenced.
Myth #2: The early church fathers only embraced a literal interpretation of Scripture.
Not true! One of the early church fathers, Saint Augustine (AD 354–430), suggested that the biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason. From an important passage in his De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim, or The Literal Meaning of Genesis (early fifth century AD), we read:
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.3
Augustine’s words resonate with us, as they did with Galileo. If the church had heeded Augustine’s advice not to impose itself in matters in which it was unskilled, and if power and control had not been such a focus for the church at the time, then this long battle between the church and science may never have taken place.
Myth #3: Mankind is an irrelevant sideshow.
Fuelling the great divorce is the viewpoint by some that mankind is an irrelevant sideshow in a vast universe containing billions of galaxies.
Cosmologists of our time have extrapolated the Copernican view, that the earth is not the center of our solar system, to a vastly broader scenario (spanning 92 billion light years)—that our location within the universe of a hundred billion galaxies is in no way special. Our sun is one of a hundred billion stars located in the outer parts of an apparently random spiral galaxy. Does our location really matter? Does it mean that mankind is a mere accident in an accident of accidents?
But there is something special about our universe. A delicate interplay of its age and its size and its fundamental laws has made carbon-based life possible. The law of gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces, are finely tuned for the emergence of life. If the force of gravity were stronger, nuclear reactions in the cores of stars would have proceeded so rapidly that their lifetimes would have been very short—too short for the appearance of carbon-based life. Conversely, if the force of gravity were weaker, stars would not have become hot enough for nuclear reactions to start, and we would have no suns. As we understand it, the universe has to be as big as it is—enough time had to pass for the expansion of our universe to have cooled itself off sufficiently after the hot big bang in order for galaxies and stars to form. From our astronomical standpoint, therefore, the expanding universe appears to be relatively old and large.
No reader should be surprised that the universe is so large, because as far as we can observe, we could not exist in one that is any smaller. The point to be emphasized here is that the fine-tuning makes us scientifically rather special: without this fine-tuning, we would not be here.
We should not be dismayed about living in a vast universe, as Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle was when he wrote, “Behold a universe so immense that I am lost in it. I no longer know where I am. I am just nothing at all. Our world is terrifying in its insignificance.”4
This is not the mood in the Gospels; they are full of astonishment, wonder, and awe. The incarnation resounds with a central message of purpose. Mankind is special enough that the Creator of this universe visited this world in person out of his love for fallen mankind and died for us. In affirmation, the pre-Copernican medieval models evoked a very positive mood in the theologians of Galileo’s day: everything revolved around the earth—mankind was the focal point of creation.
On the other hand, Galileo’s opponents failed to understand that the incarnation is independent of geographical locale, and positing the earth as moving in its orbit does not denigrate mankind in any way. The Holy Spirit broods over God’s entire universe; we, therefore, wonder why the notion of location was so important to thinkers of that time.
Myth #4: The truth of scientism.
The ideology of scientism is an optimistic faith in the power of science alone to resolve the mysteries of the world, a form of science that dismisses God, who entered our world, as a fairytale.
The chemist Peter Atkins embraces scientism, and he believes that. . .
Scientists, with their implicit trust in reductionism, are privileged to be at the summit of knowledge, and to see further into truth than any of their contemporaries. . . . There is no reason to expect that science cannot deal with any aspect of existence. . . . Science has never encountered a barrier that it has not surmounted or that we can at least reasonably suppose it has the power to surmount. . . . I do not consider that there is any corner of the real universe or the mental universe that is shielded from [science’s] glare.5
Thinking of dark matter and dark energy, we are still far from the summit of knowledge. Astronomers do not understand approximately 96% of the content of our universe.
Concepts like dark matter and dark energy are known unknowns, in the famous wise words of former US Secretary of Defense Donald Henry Rumsfeld.
In February 2002 Rumsfeld expounded the notion of known knowns. These are things we know that we know. But there are also known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know.
How drastically has our understanding of cosmology and physics changed over the past fifty years. Physicists are hard at work to develop a grand unified theory, which operates on both the macroscopic and microscopic scales. Dark matter and dark energy have entered central stage, as known unknowns—they are recent concepts in our inventory of knowledge—1930s for dark matter and 1990s for dark energy—but will they still dominate the minds of astronomers and physicists in twenty years time, or will other fundamental insights (unknown unknowns) spawn a new scientific revolution by then?
Galileo was right on the mark when he stated that “what we know is only a tiny part of what we do not know.” But he could have gone even further.
In the words of theologian Scott Bontrager:
Our natural abilities to discern truth about the world ceases with things invisible— lacking senses to perceive the invisible world there is no way for us to know truths that lead to our eternal beatitude—the perfection for which we were created. . . To get beyond our natural limitations and progress towards our perfection (sharing in the divine nature), we need God’s help: an infusion of grace. This grace, for Aquinas, comes in the form of the Holy Scriptures, which are God’s willing self-revelation to us.6
As scientists, we gladly acknowledge the role of science in illuminating the nature of our world. . . But we are skeptical about its power to shine into every corner of the universe. . . Bontrager's invisible world seems out of reach for the scientific method.
Myth #5: Galileo quoted the Scriptures through the lens of faith.
Galileo quotes extensively from Scripture in his famous letter addressed to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. A most interesting perspective on his usage of the Scriptures comes from interviews with the late Professor Jean Mesnard of the Sorbonne in Paris, one of the greatest experts on the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Mesnard argued that Galileo’s mistake was that he did not see far enough. We see Galileo as the ultimate empiricist. As a faithful member of the Catholic Church, he tried to defend the Scriptures with reason against the perceived attack from science and without emphasis on the role of faith, and in doing so, Galileo opened the way to atheism, asserts Mesnard.
As we read in the Bible, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6).
Fr. George Coyne SJ , former director of the Papal Observatory at the Vatican, agrees. with Jean Mesnard and elaborates:
Religion yielded to the temptation to root its own existence in the rational certitudes characteristic of the natural sciences. . . evidence derived from religious experience itself became secondary or even forgotten.
In our discussions, which ranged over several years, Mesnard stressed that one cannot resort to physical experiments when dealing with God’s interaction with our world. Unlike the moons orbiting Jupiter, God cannot be subjected to empirical investigations through a telescope. Reason has its place in interpreting physical experiments, but since the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution in Galileo’s time, people have applied reason to evaluating certain spiritual revelations for which reason (and experiment) is not appropriate. The love of Jesus cannot be placed in a test tube.
- Owen Gingerich, “The Galileo Affair,” Scientific American 247, no. 2 (1982): 123–24.
- In the age of Galileo, there were many words to name the new instrument (spyglass) invented in Holland. One of these words was “cannone,” i. e. “tube.” Consequently, when the monk Benedictine monk Angelo Grillo says “cannonista ,” he implies a person who uses a “cannon” (i.e. a “telescope”). (Although “gunner” would not be an appropriate translation for “cannonista,” those in possession of a telescope, according to Grillo, could metaphorically destroy ideas of order and gun down literal interpretation of the Bible, and in this sense the telescope was a weapon - an intellectual weapon. We are deeply grateful to the Galilean scholar Franco Giudice for this insight).
- Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. and ed. John Hammond Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers 41 (New York: Newman, 1982), 42–43.
- Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Conversations with a Lady on the Plurality of Worlds, or Etretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes (1686), as quoted in Block, D.L. “Our Universe: Accident or Design?,” Beith Laboraties, Sandton, South Africa. page 1.
- Peter W. Atkins, “The Limitless Power of Science,” in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, ed. John Cornwell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 125.
- Scot C. Bontrager, “Nature and Grace in the First Question of the Summa,” Scot Bontrager (blog), February 1, 2010, with link:
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